“You think you’re reading an essay. You’re not. You’re moving through a funnel. This shouldn’t surprise you. You’ve been moving through funnels all day.”
That’s how the data visualizer Elijah Meeks opens his Medium essay “We Live in a World of Funnels.” If you’re online, Meeks says, you’re in a funnel. Amazon, sure — but also Twitter, Medium, Facebook, or cruising around someone’s website: funnels. Applying for a grant? Funnel. Offline? Funnels, everywhere. Even when you’re in a meeting, you’re “unconsciously in a funnel”:
And even when you’re at a conference, watching someone deliver a paper (or reading one in a journal): funnel. Maybe a bad, leaky funnel, with you checking your phone every 15 seconds, but funnel none the less.
We’re almost always in a funnel, or supposed to be. The trick for researchers and research communicators is to acknowledge that what we do puts people in funnels as well — and to come to terms with what that means for how we talk with them.
Funnels are another name for narrative — the description of the journeys we take all day on pathways that have been mapped out by someone else.
“We Live in a World of Funnels” is about how data visualizers have resorted to an impoverished way of rendering that funnel narrative, as a bar chart such as the above — precise about that ideal pathway, but not necessarily accurate to what happens in real life, to how we don’t “walk cleanly through the stages of a system”:
We backtrack, we jump ahead. There isn’t a clear path — there are forks in the path. You might click on a pair of shoes and add it to your cart and then go back and click on another pair of shoes and go round and round trying to decide whether or not it’s the right pair of shoes. You might be reading this essay and never finish it and still share it or click the clap button. That difference in how you move through the system of reading an article on Medium is lost in these overly simplified views.
Here’s one visualization Meeks offers as a more accurate way of describing our fitful journey through a funnel to buy a book — one with forks and loops:
If you want to build authority out of your research expertise, you probably need to rethink your relationship with funnels:
First: research still too often works in short, simplistic funnels. Publication should turn into understanding. Discovery into curiosity and excitement for science. Report + briefings into policy action. Short funnels fill our tactics and what passes for our strategic thinking. We fail to implement the long game of engagement and thought leadership for our ideas and insights — to take into account the forks and loops, the need for repetition.
Second: we deny that funnels exist. We pretend that we are simply “communicating” research or “disseminating” information, and that funnels are for dirty marketers. That denial harms our work. Our work would be better, more productive and more ethical if we acknowledged all the funnels it creates and engages, including
- a) the paper’s narrative;
- b) the outreach for it (and where it is supposed to lead);
- c) the ones we neglect (everything from email capture to year-long ideas campaigns) that build the authority we would like to build for our expertise and that of our organization or institution; and
- d) all those funnels that compete with our funnels and undermine it.
Funnels aren’t just some sinister algorithm, tricking us into buying stuff. You’ve been in a funnel just reading this piece. Your work is building funnels — funnels that acknowledge the messiness of communication, but funnels that also actually work, in the face of and with that messiness.